Marketing men in heaven as stars add to IPL frenzy

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The Independent Online

In the shadows of Delhi's Kotla Stadium, barely a decent fielder's throw from the closely-cropped square, a simple question brought a multitude of answers.

"I'm going to be supporting Mumbai. I like Sachin Tendulkar," declared Viki Sanjeev, waiting for his lunchtime chai at a scruffy tea stand next to the stadium. "I like Shane Warne. I will back Rajasthan," said Pandar, another customer.

And so it went on, an outpouring of excitement and unguarded energy about teams and favourite players and the imminent start of the new India Premier League that is all but guaranteed to become a huge success here. Everyone had their own favourite, everyone their own reason for supporting the team they had decided to back in this new Twenty20 style competition.

That people should have displayed such enthusiasm at a location so close to the home ground of the Delhi cricket team was perhaps not surprising. But bring up the subject of the sport anywhere in cricket-mad India and you will be assured of an immediate and usually impassioned conversation.

In India, cricket is more than just a sport, but the IPL has taken this obsession even further, involving not just the best domestic and international cricket players it can lay claim to, but also roping in the other major love of Indians – Bollywood stars. Back in January it was announced that, Shah Rukh Khan, perhaps India's most celebrated movie star of the moment, had bought a major stake in the Kolkata Knight Riders, the franchise from the city formerly known as Calcutta that will include the likes of Sourav Ganguly and Ricky Ponting. "We are here to play to win," he declared.

The officials at Delhi's franchise, the Daredevils, which includes the likes of homegrown talent Virender Sehwag and Australian paceman Glenn McGrath, expressed similar sentiment. Inside the stadium, dozens of workers were preparing the stands for the team's opening game against Warne's Rajasthan Royals on 19 April. Entire new sections were being built and contractors were steadily erecting a new floodlight.

Vikash Kumar, a director of GMR Sports, which owns the team, said: "In India people don't just follow cricket, people treat it like a religion. In the UK you have your county matches but you don't have that many people going. Here in India we have more than a million people. The marketing people get a lot of opportunities to do things."

Of the benefit of introducing international players to India's domestic game, he added: "Stars are always welcome. That is what we are trying to do, keep the stars so that when people come to watch they see a glittering sky."

For all of Kumar's poetic exhortations, his comments about the business and marketing opportunities for cricket in a country with hundreds of millions of supporters, was probably the more telling. Indeed, other athletes in India believe the attention that has been received by the new IPL could damage other sports.

In a recent article, world billiards champion Geet Sethi, a promoter of a sports fund dedicated to backing athletes with the potential to win India a first individual Olympic gold medal in this summer's games, wrote: "The fanatical obsession called cricket has just joined hands with the film world to create a new pastime (I consciously refrain from calling it sport) where it will gain even further visibility and media hype fuelled by both cricket and Bollywood. This in turn will almost certainly divert sponsorship which could have gone to disciplines with a genuine chance of winning India that Olympic gold."

Nishant Singh, a business lawyer and cricket fan, said: "This represents the commercialisation of cricket. Cricket has reached the stage in India where it is more than a sport. But some in the government and in the world of business are trying to build on this to make money."

England players to be asked views over India

Players' chiefs will talk to England's leading cricketers and officials next week in an attempt to find a way to accommodate them in future seasons of the Indian Premier League.

Following Lalit Modi, the IPL chairman, reiterating his willingness to shift the dates of the cash rich Twenty20 competition in future years to allow Englishmen to take part, the Professional Cricketers' Association will canvass the views of the national side once they are over their jet lag after returning from their New Zealand tour. Talks are also planned with the England and Wales Cricket Board.

Although Hampshire's Dimitri Mascarenhas is the only England international in the IPL, which starts next month, plans need to be put in place now if a window is to be opened in future.

"We will ask the players how they feel," Sean Morris, the PCA chief executive, said. "We need to sit them down and ask their views, some might have different opinions to others.

"But I would like to think on behalf of the players we would be able to take advantage of this concept and allow them to reap the benefits.

"There may be a very strong collective view, but there may also be different circumstances for individuals which would effect their decision.

"Mr Modi is saying that he's prepared to move his tournament to accommodate English players and that is music to everyone's ears in this country."

Richard Gibson

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